As bee population wanes, one Austin honey-maker presses on


Only a few years ago, Tara Chapman was wrapping up a decade of sometimes-dangerous intelligence and policy work in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Now 34, she’s left behind the Kevlar vest for a beekeeping suit, tending to a few dozen hives around Austin.

“I’ve traded in one suit of protective gear for another,” said the honey meister, who supplies gorgeous, delectable bits of raw honeycomb to such local restaurants as Trace.

She has also become something of an activist: Chapman is a member of a group of farmers, environmentalists and researchers pressing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids that they say threatens the pollinator population.

Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department recently announced it would cease using on its golf courses neonicotinoids — which can disrupt the central nervous system of insects, leaving them paralyzed, and are blamed by some scientists for an ongoing collapse of the bee population.

Roughly a third of our food chain is the result of pollination that happened in a farmer’s field, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

A 2015 report found that, between 2008 and 2013, bee abundance declined across nearly a quarter of the nation. The report’s authors attributed the decline to conversion of natural habitats to row crops as well as to pesticide use, climate change and disease.

Austin has about 180 species of bees, according to Shalene Jha, a University of Texas biologist who studies bees; they can be distinguished, in part, by the location of their hair, which catches pollen. Some have hair on their eyes, some on their knees and others on their bellies.

Industry scientists say the pesticides can increase overall crop yields.

But that’s short-term thinking, Jha said at a press event organized Thursday by Environment Texas.

“We’re altering our agricultural system, reducing diversity and pulverizing the soil,” she said.

Chapman had grown up in a small town near Lubbock, the daughter of blue-collar parents — her stepfather is a mechanic for Greyhound; her mother does odd jobs, most recently working at a funeral home — before heading to Duke University.

She was the first in her family to graduate from college and at the school career fair sneaked her résumé into a stack at the CIA table; she worked as a CIA operative for five years, stationed chiefly in Pakistan — “We were working in areas that weren’t very safe, doing things those countries wouldn’t want us to do,” she said — before working for a congressional commission investigating wartime contracts and then for the Special Inspector General on Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Longing for Texas, if not Lubbock, she began splitting time between Kabul and Austin. On a whim, she took a beekeeping class about four years ago; hooked, she and a friend started out with a pair of hives — she would call her business, which includes beekeeping education, Two Hives Honey — but decided she needed more experience before striking out on her own.

She wrote to a Navasota beekeeping business to see about a job. Beekeeping is hard work, including the lifting of 50 to 90 pound cases of honeycomb — and determined to impress she included in an introductory email how much weight she could deadlift.

She was hired, working six-day weeks with 12-hour days in the hot Texas sun in a sweltering beekeeping suit.

Like other beekeepers, she has neat factoids about bees at the ready: The average worker bee lives 42 days and produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime; bees travel up to five miles to forage.

She said the only thing that ties her two careers together might be how uncommon it is for a woman to hold the jobs she’s had.

“To see a youngish female professional beekeeper is really rare,” she said.

The other common thread is how unusual the jobs themselves are. “My mom is wondering when I’m going to take a normal job,” she said.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Here’s what we’re watching at today’s Austin City Council meeting
Here’s what we’re watching at today’s Austin City Council meeting

Today is the Austin City Council’s last general meeting of 2017, with a lengthy agenda of items officials hope to tackle before the council takes a six-week winter break. After initially agreeing to the idea, council members may vote for good to waive $6.8 million in permit fees for the first phase of the state’s Texas Capitol Complex plan...
Blake Farenthold won’t seek re-election amid sexual harassment claims
Blake Farenthold won’t seek re-election amid sexual harassment claims

U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold won’t seek re-election, less than a week after a House committee opened an investigation into sexual harassment claims from a former aide. Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, made the announcement Thursday morning on his campaign Facebook page. “I’d never served in public office before. I had no idea how to run...
Woman evicted days before her 94th birthday, jailed when she refuses to leave, police say
Woman evicted days before her 94th birthday, jailed when she refuses to leave, police say

A 93-year-old Eustis woman was in jail Wednesday night after being arrested for allegedly refusing to leave her home at National Church Residences’ Franklin House after being evicted, police said. Juanita Fitzgerald was jailed just days before her 94th birthday on Friday. According to a Eustis Police Department arrest report, Fitzgerald had been...
Restaurant employee used Snapchat to track teen customers, police say
Restaurant employee used Snapchat to track teen customers, police say

Police in Alpharetta, Georgia, have arrested a restaurant employee accused of using Snapchat to stalk two teenage girls. Jason Porras, 23, is charged with enticing a minor for indecent purposes. “Someone had been randomly reaching out to her on social media and over time had sent her inappropriate messages,” the father of one of the girls...
FORECAST: Cold front to bring highs in 50s, rain chances this weekend
FORECAST: Cold front to bring highs in 50s, rain chances this weekend

Thursday forecast for Austin: Temperatures across the Austin area will once again remain seasonable, with highs expected to reach into the mid-60s across the area.  However, a cold front expected to arrive Thursday morning will bring a new dose of cooler air that will slowly sink in, which will set the stage for a chilly overnight as temperatures...
More Stories